Redeemer Arts

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City

Friday, July 20, 2012

Medium and Message

Both religion and the arts provide access to desires and needs that are a part of being human. Will Willimon states how “God continually, graciously, gives himself to us and makes himself available to us through touched, tasted, experienced, visible means.” (Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care, p. 151) By God’s grace knowledge arrives in many forms. This is precisely why the artist’s creative action also strengthens faith. Multifaceted art experiences helps establish concrete connections to theology. Art helps “flesh out” facts, data, concepts and makes them dynamic.

Art comes by exploration of ordinary human abilities. We notice, remember, speak sounds, listen, understand and recognize. Then, we take our findings, order them, create patterns, adjust and manipulate our resources. Matthew Crawford finds “moral significance” to this type “of work that grapples with material things.” For working with our hands, discovering the properties of materials, takes us “outside the self.” (Crawford, Shop Class As Soulcraft p.16) Perhaps this is why art is sometimes termed as transcendent, and consequently, why it can play a vital role in our spiritual formation. Art is not necessarily a distraction, but instead exercises our attentiveness. I remember defending my teenager’s doodling in a parent-teacher conference explaining how the drawing gave access to the listening.

Through the busy work of creating we also collect information that shapes the way we perceive the world and make sense of it. Juhani Pallasmaa states how “Artistic expression is engaged with pre-verbal meanings of the world, meanings that are incorporated and lived rather than simply intellectually understood.” (Pallasmaa, The Eyes of Skin, p.24) Art is a different way of discovering God and the world he set us in. Art can also be the medium that allows us to care for His creation. If John Patton’s statement that “The message of God’s care is inseparable from the messenger,” think of what our art work could deliver. (Patton, Pastoral Care and Counseling, p.95)

If the word became incarnate, God’s message of love and forgiveness found in the medium of Jesus’ body, we don't have an excuse to put the paint brushes down, forgo the dance class, tell ourselves art making takes too much time. Marilynne Robinson reminds us of “when people still had sensibilities, and encouraged them in one another.” According to Robinson folks “assumed the value and even the utility of many kinds of learning for which now we can find no use whatever.” (Robinson, The Death of Adam, p. 9) We learn from encounter with the world. Literacy is not just the ability to read information, but connects our embodied knowledge and histories with the words being offered.

You are the medium, and you have a message.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Presence in Writing

As a writer, grappling with the writing process every day, I often come across comments like this, “…the work itself – the practice of the craft of writing – must be its own reward”(Dennis Palumbo, Writing from the Inside Out, 53). Over the years such statements have paled, and in fact, become a source of discouragement for me. Because oftentimes writing isn’t its own reward. Such phrases – art for art’s sake – actually became statements of disillusionment and abandonment. 

Recently I intentionally re-read Mark Batterson’s book, The Circle Maker, because I want to grow in prayer and faith. I was surprised to find that much of the same material that applied to me as a spiritual person also spoke to me as a writer. And then it hit me. When I see the word, “prayer,” it’s a word of relationship. When I pray, I’m entering into a relationship with Christ. I’m not alone. But when I utter the word, “writing,” I’m alone. It is no secret that aloneness and loneliness is a “right of passage” every writer must accept. Naturally, then, it would also become core to the writer’s identity. 

As a Christian, maybe this is something that needs to be questioned and reassessed. Writing, like prayer, is not only about the inner being, the self, but it’s also about communicating and interacting with the world (evangelium). It’s about finding relationship through the craft. It’s also about being in a relationship with Jesus. When I sit down at my desk, turn on the computer, and look at the blank page – forced to confront myself – it can be terrifying. I realized that much like the effects of prayer, I want Jesus to be waiting there on the other side. I need to know that he’s waiting there. 

It’s about entering presence. When I conceive of it that way, I’m not abandoned to figure it out on my own. I’m not begging the blank stare of art for art’s sake to fulfill me. Instead, I’m stepping into glory. 
It’s still a struggle, for the daily discipline of writing often feels harsh and unrelenting. But if it is your call, your work, then like prayer, it can also be a conduit into Christ’s presence. Then the raw discipline, the craft, the monotonous constancy isn’t the end in itself. Rather, the reward is an invitation into his presence. It’s an investment and cultivation into something eternal. It’s a journey home. 

Thinking, Oil and Wallpaper
--Anita Kobayashi Sung
Anita is one of the many talented artists that participated in our seven-week faith and art study, In the Living Room, this past spring.  Anita and her husband David are both graduates from Gordon-Conwell Seminary and will soon start a church in Manhattan. 

Come to InterArts Fellowship this Monday Night at the W83 Ministry Center as we examine how Eternal Life shapes the present lives of artists. Featuring works by The James Hall Quintet, Anna Hillengas Troester, Maria Fee and guest speaker Cherith Fee Nordling. Artists reception to follow program.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Working at Worship

Writing on the original meaning and use of the word liturgy Nicholas Wolterstorff considers how “leitourgia never did mean action of the people. It meant action for the benefit of the people.” According to Wolterstorff the liturgy was actually considered “a type of public service.” (Wolterstorff, Major Themes in Reform Tradition, p. 274) Precisely because the liturgy is meant to benefit Christians Janet Walton heralds art as being one of the forms that should be utilized towards this public service. In her book Art and Worship Walton recognizes how the content of worship functions as a way of shaping God’s people. Liturgy, therefore, is not just a program to follow. Instead, Walton encourages churches to introduce “forms that will connect the revelation of God with the most poignant needs of the people who constitute the church.” (Walton, Art and Worship, p.56)

Indeed, Tim Keller relates how reason may tells us about truth, but we “really cannot grasp what it means without art.” Keller goes on to say how “the sensual expression of truth allows you to hear the truth, see the truth, to taste it, touch it, and smell it.”  (Keller, It Was Good, Making Art to the Glory of God, p.121-122) Yet the random insertion of art into worship many times reads as novelty, not revelation. Perhaps this penchant for novelty in worship can be bypassed if congregations begin to embody a theology of the arts. Part of this theology must take into consideration the corporate nature of art. Churches must ask what will inspire creative and regenerative corporate worship that will move beyond the doors of the church into the hearts of its people in order to shape their everyday lives.

By grace art bridges God to men and gathers people to one another. One must also consider the humanizing element of art which allows us to bring everyday experiences into worship. This makes worship and art more relevant, dynamic and contextual. Conversely, art in worship can certainly reverberate into our daily life. A theology of the arts recognizes the symbiotic relationship between theology and art. Thomas Franklin O’Meara speaks of the importance of this relationship when he relates how “Theology is the discernment of the presence of the ‘More’ amid sin and grace. Like art, when theology is only a symbolism, it is empty—devoid of prophetic, existential, and spontaneously transcendent dimensions, and ready to be passed over quickly.” (O’Meara, Art, Creativity and the Sacred, p. 215)

Quite frankly art is not the primary theological form we must consider when we talk about corporate worship. Consequently, we should ponder Marva Dawn’s assertion regarding art and worship by focusing on “the biblical picture of the Body of Christ [a]s the preeminent image for guiding this aspect of theological formulations. This metaphor primarily reminds us that Christ is the Head; he must remain the focus, and his self-giving presence determines everything that we do.” (Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, p.130) Art, therefore, is the medium that springs forth from discourse regarding how the incarnation, resurrection and ascension define elements of our corporate worship.

Richard Rohr wisely reminds us how God likes us despite our rituals. “God doesn’t need them, but we need them to tenderly express our childlike devotion and desire—and to get in touch with that desire.” Ultimately, true worship is God’s gift for his people.

Let’s work at worshiping our Triune God with all of our being.

Friday, June 29, 2012

In My Solitude

It is arguable that the most important time in which an artist may invest is not in networking meetings or collaborative workshops but rather in time spent alone. I am not necessarily speaking of studio time or the practice room either, but of true, unencumbered, undistracted solitude. 

I realize that I am addressing urban dwellers so let me explain what may be a nearly foreign concept to people who daily inhabit shared space with about ten million other bodies, and often in close quarters. Case in point, I'm writing this on a train next to three boisterous women who are reminiscing splendidly about New York in the fifties. In between songs on my iPad I'm catching bits of their conversation muted only slightly by my headphones. Then doesn't it seem merciless of me, given our way of life, to suggest that our most formative moments will be found in carefully prepared solitude, away from other people? Besides, you might say, isn't Redeemer Arts always challenging New York artists to seek out community and not to "go it alone"? Why now does it seem like I am saying just the opposite? Let me explain.

There's a difference between isolation and solitude, between feeling completely cut off from life giving community and setting apart time to enjoy peaceful solitude. The beauty of solitude is the discovery that we are never truly alone no matter how lonely we may feel at times. But this emodied sense of eternal presence did not come to us without a price. The lonely death of the incarnate God on a Roman cross won for us these pregnant, peaceful moments alone which would otherwise be utter isolation.  But Jesus was cut off so that we would never be truly cut off. He cried out to an empty sky so that we would never have to. It is his isolation from the father in the garden and on the cross that makes possible our blessed solitude. Without the cross we'd all rightfully dread being alone and we as artists would have no hope of finding inspiration in the silence, for silence would only mean the end of fellowship with the ever-present Creator. 

In our city it's easy to awake each day to the worship of an aesthetic, a philosophy or technique. These gods of our own making have shed no blood for us, but the One who loves us is waiting to meet us in precious moments of silence apart from the noise of our distracted lives. We receive this comfort in the very place where Jesus lost it, in solitude. It is our own renewed Gethsemane which we can enjoy now because he did not. He suffered the silence of God so that even our silence would be full of promise. Bless the garden in which he suffered, and bless the peaceful solitude we now can access through grace.


*Taking of Christ, Caravaggio

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Job of Attentiveness

Brian Fee, Untitled
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

--e e cummings from i thank You God

We recently attended a lecture featuring the poet and former chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia.  If you are searching for a good articulation on the wisdom of art, Gioia is your man. Quoting Frost, Gioia reminds us how “poetry is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” And, the former chairman made no qualms citing how impoverished our culture has become, now bereft of beauty. One example is the disparity between a WPA-era built public building, such as the local post office, and its contemporary version. This lack of concern for beauty illustrates how we have we lost confidence in its power.  And, isn't it interesting with the loss of beauty truth soon became untenable? We live in the time of the great no.

Art, however, lifts us from negation to tenderize the imagination. It opens eyes wider and ears deeper to encounter what is unimaginable. Through numerous experiences of cognitive tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing  we develop and strengthen our beauty muscles. Beauty itself is a process. Gioia brakes down the movements into four steps: 1) Beauty causes us to linger. 2) In the lingering we experience pleasure. 3) This pleasure stems from capturing the true-ness of the object that has initiated the lingering. 4) Steps 1 through 3 are fleeting, reminding us we are not in control and that beauty is grace—a gift we have not earned.  Isn’t all of learning a gift?

Simone Weil believes the development of attention (such as in school studies) is “extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer.” (Weil, Waiting for God, p. 105) In our pragmatic obsession with the accumulation of information we have forgotten our aim in learning and the reliability of our senses to teach us how big God is. If Weil is correct, the attentiveness found and strengthened through our work can create the space of prayer.

And, beauty, as Gioia avers, is a reliable way to learn this attentiveness. Art speaks not just to the head, but grasps the heart, utilizes the body, and culls from the recesses of memory.  Thus, aesthetics assist Christ’s mission of restoring us to our full humanity. What does all of this mean for artists? Like Jesus, we bear this burden to restore human wholeness. Artists must pick up the mantle of leadership and forge, with the help of God, new ways of bringing beauty back into all of society.

i thank You God,
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Friday, June 15, 2012

Glory Be

Spend any serious amount of time working in the arts and you're bound to stumble upon one or two or more moments of glory: a triple turn on point, the high C at 10am finished with a buttery vibrato, the character writing himself into your novel as you sit in your pajamas at midnight surrounded by rough drafts. It's all too easy to live in the lingering echoes of such moments. It reminds me of a lonely astronomer sitting in her observatory in the Arizona desert (ok yes, I'm thinking now of Jodie Foster in Contact but I had the generic image first!). I wonder if many of us would continue creating if we could not be refreshed by such blips on the radar.

I suppose the same could be said about our search for God. Much like the observatory, we wouldn't be looking if there hadn't been a contact made at some point. But in the arts we tend to latch onto to these moments don't we? It's more than a blip on the radar, it is our defining moment. The way in which we learn to respond to such anomalies will undoubtedly determine our experience in the arts. As Elizabeth Gilbert so graciously shared in her TED talk, we must learn to attribute these experiences of glory to a divine source outside of ourselves or else we will fall under the burden of re-creating such a feat on our own.

The exact opposite conclusion about glory is expressed by Oscar Hammerstein in the Sound of Music. One of my favorite songs from the score is Nothing Comes from Nothing. This languid ballad celebrates the unanticipated glory and grace of falling in love. Captain von Trapp and Fraulein Maria declare their love by moonlight and ponder that so rapturous and wonderful a love could come to them. The only explanation simply must be that they are the most deserving people on the planet or else it wouldn't make any sense for them to receive such a gift. Nothing comes from nothing...nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good. It's a logical conclusion I suppose, but as an artist I immediately think "If this good thing came because of exemplary behavior which I cannot now recall then I'm up a creek from here on out! I can never repeat that glorious moment and I'll be living in its shadow forever!" Does this sound like the way you view God's gifts sometimes, even the gift of your art? You seem to have many experiences of glory in which you create something truly special and share it with others, and yet there's no guarantee that you can produce or experience it ever again. Does it ever cause fear, even anger, that you will never have a sustained experience of glory?

I think these feelings are justified, honestly. God never meant for us to have mere blips and spurts of glory. He created us to live with him in perpetual, radiant glory as his beloved. The fits and starts of creating beauty in this life are like pulling the start cord on an old lawn mower or turning the ignition on an engine that needs some repair. But what Christ accomplished by dying in our place is that we can now get our lives back through his life and our glory back through his glory. As 1 Corinthians 5:14 reminds us, One died for all, therefore all died. And Paul elaborates on this revelation in his letter to his friends in Colossae when he writes, For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears then you will also appear with him in glory.

At our next InterArts Fellowship, Cherith Nordling and our own Maria Fee will help us explore how our work as artists, though now in fits and starts, will one day be fully experienced and shared in Eternity. That God has won back our lives on the Cross is a fact that sweeps our art work into a true, living and eternal hope.


Friday, June 8, 2012

The Church, the Artist, and the Handshake

“The door handle is the handshake of the building.”  Juhani Pallasmaa

Like a door knob, what does it signal when a church fosters an arts ministry? Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the shape and form of the arts ministry at Redeemer mainly because I’ve been fortunate to work in such a ministry, but also because I will move on to serve both the Church and the arts through formal studies at Fuller Seminary. I also recently had to articulate some of my musings for an article on urban arts ministry for Transposition, St. Andrew’s blog on Theology, Imagination and the Arts. Here, I write how the Church must encourage and theologically equip a growing urban movement. For “the city and its culture contributes to Gospel transformation as we continually die to self and become renewed, not just in our thinking, but also the way we go about life.” (read more)

If the door knob becomes the tell-tale sign of a building then how do we use this image with respect to the Church? Church, meaning not just the building, but also the gathered people of God. Furthermore, what does it mean for artists to be both welcomed and welcoming in regards to community life and the space it inhabits? As much as I hear that the local church is not a building, people need to inhabit a real space and this space should offer the signs and symbols of its community. The Word needs to become enfleshed by our acts and our art.

For the last couple of weeks Transposition has chosen to tackle this hefty subject of art and Church. It has gathered artists, pastors, scholars and asked them to reflect on or present examples of where and how art and Church intersect.  Transposition hopes you’ll visit the posted articles, videos, and essays in order to stimulate dialogue and inspire new works for and from the Church. Please visit the Art in the Church Workshop schedule of postings. 

The architect and architectural theorist, Juhani Pallasmaa, understand how shape and touch are interconnected. Artists are deeply aware of how we shape through our touch. The implications of this knowledge are staggering and should be shared with the Church. I bookend with a continuation of Pallasmaa’s thought from the line cited above: 

“The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.”

It is the call of the artist and the Christian to shake the hands of countless generations.